Working for a tech giant has its perks. But for Connor Folley, “there’s something about the passion and the hustle of founding a startup.”
That excitement has driven Folley, 38, to launch two startups — one of which was inspired in part by working for more than two years as a marketing manager in Amazon’s Consumer Electronics division.
That venture is a Seattle-based company called Downstream. The startup is developing tools to help vendors, sellers and agencies manage their marketing investments on Amazon with insight, automation and scale. As Amazon’s importance in online retail grows, brands are increasingly looking at ways to boost sales in the channel. Others also have invested in this arena, including Spokane-based Etailz, which sold to Trans World Entertainment for $75 million in cash and stock in 2016.
Folley co-founded Downstream with former AWS software development manager Salim Hamed four months ago. At the five-person company, Folley is CEO and Hamed is chief technology officer.
We caught up with Folley — one of 10 entrepreneurs participating in the Techstars Seattle program — for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Downstream helps brands analyze and automate how they market their products on Amazon and other e-retailers.”
Inspiration hit us when: “We realized our complementary capabilities make us a dangerous founding team. After that, it was about finding a solid idea to start with and evolve with the changing landscape and needs of our users.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Bootstrap initially, now seeking investment from angels and the VC community so we can scale quickly and take advantage of the opportunity before us.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “The combination of domain and technology expertise on our team. Few people have a true understanding of the marketing opportunity on Amazon, the platform, and have actually managed Amazon search marketing at such a large scale. Amazon is a dynamic e-commerce marketplace with exponentially more factors to consider in optimizing ad spend than other online options, so this expertise is critical. On the technology side, our engineering team is incredibly talented and primarily staffed by former senior engineers from AWS. They built our system to scale as advertising directly on Amazon continues to grow. We’ll also be expanding our programmatic AI capabilities.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Aside from deciding to team up as co-founders, it was joining Techstars. The structure, mentorship and opportunities this program has provided us will benefit Downstream and our customers for as long as we are punching this clock.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Being too conservative on hiring — you really have to be in front of your capacity needs, or it will bite you quickly. Set contracts up with very specific timing and with the understanding that you’ll need to scale to deliver for the customer, which can take time, especially in Seattle.”
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Bezos. Not saying Amazon culture is perfect, but the leadership principles are so valuable I even teach them to my children. He doesn’t get his due as a visionary.”
Our favorite team-building activity is: “These days, we are laser focused on the task at hand and aren’t able to take as much time for team-building as I’d like. However, we do make a point of getting the team out for a walk together at least once a day — Seattle is such a great city.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Passion. You can’t replace passion with pedigree. Salim and I want to see that a candidate is excited about the role. We have our own techniques for deducing this. On my end, I want to establish that the candidate spent some time day dreaming or imagining themselves in the role. I ask about what ideas they have (realistic or not) to demonstrate whether they are passionate about the mission and have spent some time thinking about the potential of the role and the company.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Find a great co-founder and spend the time upfront to discuss potential future outcomes one, five, 10 years out to ensure you are aligned on goals and vision. Ensuring you and your founder(s) are aligned from the beginning will save you from painful discussions later on.”
Editor’s note: GeekWire is featuring each of the ten startups in Techstars Seattle leading up to their Demo Day on April 18. Techstars is a worldwide network that offers 40 mentorship-driven accelerator programs around the globe.